[Hello fellow chowhounds! Sorry we haven't been around lately, but after two months driving around the US we're finally back in Paris and enjoying a stable net connection. We're busy preparing our review of the voyage on the Queen Elizabeth 2, so until that's ready here's an extremely long review of a great French restaurant to tide you over. Chow!]
Last night, Burke and I enjoyed a fabulous dinner at Laperouse, one of the finest restaurants on the left bank. To tell the story of this meal properly requires we begin long before they placed the first amuse-bouche.
We were able to spend last April, May and June in Paris only by guarding our pennies. Our dotcom had laid us off, so we abandoned our Silicon Valley home, left the San Francisco area with half our belongings in storage (at no mean monthly cost) and flew to Paris with hope and trust in our suitcases. There could be no blowout Guy Savoy $1000 meals, not until we had once again secured an income. Instead, we enjoyed what Paris has to offer for gastronomes on a budget. It was heaven.
One place we did try, despite the expense, was a satellite of Guy Savoy's, one of his many upscale bistros catering to a hip crowd: Les Bookinistes, in the 6th, along the lovely Quai des Grands Augustins. For the price (200 Euros for two) we found it only acceptable, riding the Guy Savoy name without much of the Guy Savoy magic. We left not displeased, but not dancing.
Walking home, across the street from Bookinistes, we saw a gorgeous belle epoque restaurant, wrought iron and gaslight, velvet and figured ceilings. Laperouse. "Ah, a baby rabbit," I told Burke, utterly wrong (it's named for its famous manager from the 1870s--the word for a baby rabbit is "laprouse"). We pressed our noses against the windows, marvelled at the marble busts, the tasteful, lush bar and appointments. "We should have eaten here," I said. Burke nodded. It's a memory that stuck with us.
Flash forward to September; we found ourselves out for a nightly stroll around 11pm, during our first week back in France. After a time my feet ached, my back was throbbing, I needed to sit; we were very close to home, but I wanted to get a moment's rest. Six or seven chairs were outside a beautiful building, we took a seat and were enjoying the cool night air. We realized we were at Laperouse, and again we found ourselves marvelling at the interior of this restaurant through the frosted-glass windows.
The proprietor came out. Clearly it was time to take the chairs in; we obviously weren't dressed for dinner, hadn't reservations--he was well within his rights to chase us from our perch. Instead he talked to us, in excellent English. He joined us. Within ten minutes we were comparing Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos, chatting about the restaurant business in Paris, in New York. Jack was a kindred spirit, a restauranteur who lived life fully and without compromise. "Ah, you tried the franchise place," he waved at Bookinistes, not ten yards away. "You must come to us instead! Come, anytime, I am always here!"
Three weeks later. I'd just spent four days suffering from mild food poisoning (there's a cafe in the 4th I shall never revisit) and was eager for a belated birthday dinner of solid food. Burke had left his windbreaker at the studio, so he had on his nice dinner jacket. I was sporting a tasteful black-and-white hawaiian. "You sure you don't want a jacket?" "Oh, no, we're not going anywhere too fancy." The French have a saying: "toujours pret"--always be prepared. I should have been.
We walked in the intoxicating Autumn air of the Latin Quarter, aimless except for the arrow of our appetites. Suddenly we're at Laperouse. "Perfect, this is our chance to try Jack's place." "It's Friday night, it's 8:15, we have no reservations--" "Nonsense," I say, "Jack will help us out." Indeed he did. We set foot inside and he's pumping our hands, smiling, welcoming us, making room. In an instant we're seated at a lovely table on the first floor.
I was in trouble. This wasn't an upscale bistro, like Bookinistes. This was a full restaurant, and not just any--clearly this was one of the finest in Paris, the service, the decor, the intimate beauty of the place. 1860s paintings adorned the walls along with muted Art Nouveau fixtures. I was horrified. A hawaiian shirt? Short sleeves, no jacket? I wanted to shrink into my seat. I had ventured into a restaurant without research, without preparing, and suddenly I was the ugly American. Burke noticed. "Stop fidgeting, why are you so nervous?" "No jacket!" I gasped. The service was trim, discrete, polite, everything a top table should be, but I felt a chill. I was not being respectful to the place, to the meal we were clearly about to have.
Another French saying came to my rescue: "rien est impossible"--nothing is impossible. "I'm going home to get my jacket." "What!? Now? We've already sat down!" I knew there would be no joy in this dinner if I was aching over my clothes. So I slipped off. Jack caught me at the door. "Where are you going?" "I must get my jacket!" "No and no again! It's nothing, it will be warm, please, return upstairs!" "I cannot, I cannot, I must have my jacket, it's an insult!" Then I remembered how to do someone a favor in this country. "Please, Jack, please let me get my jacket, I live just around the corner, I'll feel so much better, do this for me?" That worked, I was free.
I'm not much of a sprinter, but I positively ran home, struggled with the keys, dodged traffic, dropped the hawaiian in favor of a white silk shirt, my cashmere jacket, and was back out the door. I still had my red silk pocket square on me, from the trip aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2. Burke was shocked to see me back so quickly. "That was fast, you ran?" Now I was comfortable, now I felt like I belonged in the room. And the service warmed like glowing coals--I got smiles, full smiles. I had gone the extra mile, done the extraordinary, made a happy comedy out of what began as accidental disrespect. We sat down underdressed and without reservations solely by virtue of our friendship with the owner. Now we were there through merit--deserving of their best, and ours.
Our goal, whenever and wherever we eat, is to maximize the experience. You do that by reminding yourself, every moment, what fun it is to dine out, how you give to yourself when you make the effort to dress, to learn, to understand, to appreciate. As a diner, it makes you shine with a kind of light, and it reminds the service why they went into the restaurant business in the first place. Last night, like every night, we were determined to have the time of our lives, and so we did.
I sat down in my nice black jacket, and instantly, "Messieurs are doubtless ready to order?" We laugh. Poor Burke had spent fifteen lonely minutes studying the menu, you bet he was ready! The drama of the jacket was now a private joke, something between us, something that makes for family. We ordered, but already the atmosphere was so intimate our head waiter, Carlos Romeira, tasteful, knowledgeable and impeccable, felt free to nudge us towards the very best on the menu. "I'm caught between the pigeon and the veal," I ask him. "Which would you pick?" "Ah, between those two, the pigeon." Between those two? Hidden in that perfectly polite answer was an opportunity, a clue that something else on the menu was better than either the pigeon or the veal. "But if I want the Laperouse experience, what would you recommend?" Immediately came the suggestion, "Le filet de charolais fume." It was a lesson in proper service, always respectful, aware of the client's wishes, but full of opportunity to steer them towards the most rewarding possible experience. We both chose the filet.
Tiny breadsticks with a dill and chevril dip kept our tongues entertained while we studied the lovely menu. This is innovative French cuisine, not afraid to go beyond the boundaries of traditional gastronomy. If the evening had a theme, it was "air." We began with a lovely light custard flavored with homard and paprika, served in small glasses. Spicy, light, deliciously flavorful, it did just what an amuse bouche should--tickle the tastebuds and pave the way for the meal to come.
Burke's appetizer was a salad of langoustines in a creamy vinaigrette. We're not certain what planet these langoustines came from, but they grow them big there. These were monstrous, the size of tiger prawns. They were crisp, light, cooked to a delicate crunch and even tenderness. The 35 Euro price was high, startlingly high for an appetizer, but Burke felt it was worth it. The price of langoustines is so exorbitant that the restaurant probably has to charge that much to keep its margin. Aside from sticker shock, it was a lovely start.
My meal began with a fricasse of champignons, those queens of the mushroom world. The chef understood the secret to preparing mushrooms is moisture control: it's the only way to guarantee a proper texture. These were tender and crispy, buttery, subtle, not the slightest trace of that rubbery mush so common with champignons. To my surprise, the light, almost watery butter they were served in had been whipped to a froth. I'd never had this dish with a foamy component, but it added a new taste and texture--air. Again, air had been incorporated to add dimension. A trend was becomming clear.
The standout of the evening was the main course. Neither of us were prepared for it. "Beef? Oh no, the French have trouble with beef." Burke was right--in the six months we'd spent in France we had not one truly memorable slab of meat, nothing that could compare to the corn-fed, melt-in-your-mouth, aged-to-perfection examples we'd come to love at American steakhouses. French beef is often gristly, never tender, typically drowning in yet another bernaise or hidden under truffles and foie gras and sold as "a la Rossini."
Not so at Laperouse. To our surprise, the filet came neat and centered on a large white plate, resting on a luminous orange sauce. A thin sauce! Butter and carrots only, simplicity itself, like the mushrooms before. And the filet had been smoked. Throughout the steak was a stunningly rich, deep smoke flavor, aromatic, tantalizing. We'd never had anything like it. "How did they do it?" we wondered. I theorized a long hot smoke--not so! We found out later they cold smoke it for only twenty minutes. And the sauce, so light, so flavorful; had it been a hollandaisse it would have drowned the smoke. Instead it complimented it. Once more, air had been incorporated to give body and stamina to the sauce. Understand, this was not a tender piece of meat, you needed to chew it, but we both felt that was a stylistic choice, not any reflection of the quality of beef. The crispy top of the filet was dusted lightly with sea salt and cracked black pepper.
A separate dish contained the best potato puree I've had in France, hands down. It had no shortage of butter and cream, and it was so smooth it felt like velvet on the tongue. But somehow the starchy, potato honesty was preserved. It tasted like a vegetable. The chef clearly understood how starch molecules act if overprocessed, giving up water and becoming flat. He found a way to get the texture silk smooth without bruising the starch. Again, a simple ingredient executed with knowledge and skill.
The cheese course reminded us we were in France, where cheese is revered. The standout was a dry goat cheese that felt earthy, almost like clay in the mouth. To our delight, we were given a glass of fruity syrah, a St. Joseph, to compliment the cheese. Good thing, since the light, wonderful Burgundy we enjoyed with dinner wasn't up to the task. Had we given him the chance, sommelier Stephan Kergustanc would doubtless have offered even more gems from the hundreds of bottles in the Lapérouse cellar.
Dessert was the house specialty, a praline souffle a l'ancienne. I will say it was the best dessert souffle of my life to date, but I must qualify that statement. The modern souffle is a creature of light and air, so fine it's harldly got a hint of egg to it, almost a transparent transport for a flavor, such as Grand Marnier. The Laperouse example is truly ancient, the kind that might have been served in 1870. It's too sweet--instantly, the modern taste decides it's too sweet. Praline flavor, heaping tablespoons of dark caramel, a nutty, even heavy texture, it may repulse those used to a more delicate creature.
It took a few moments before I began to understand what pastry chef Jean Mark Boegli was doing. On a menu of unusual contemporary French fare, here was a dish to match the decor. This souffle wasn't trying to be lighter than air, it was showing the structure of a well-build classical souffle. You could actually taste the temperature of the oven in the crispness of the sides, the depth and tenderness of the interior and the dark gold of the cap. The caramel, dark to near burnt, mingled with the light aroma of fine dark rum, not overpowering. When I understood what this dessert was and what it was trying to do, I felt educated, I felt expanded. It's no usual souffle, but if you keep that in mind and are willing to eat a history lesson, it's one of the best.
Luscious coffee and excellent cakes completed the meal, most notably a baby financier, that buttery, purse-shaped little yellow treat that compliments coffee and tea so. It was now that we got the chance to explore the restaurant and get the history I should have acquired before we went. Turns out Laperouse is a titan of a restaurant, steeped in history. It began in 1766 and was the haunt of such literary luminaries as Emile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, Guy de Maupassant, Georges Sand and the great Victor Hugo. In 1907 it was the first restaurant ever to win three Michelin stars. It was in these kitchens that Auguste Escoffier, the king of chefs and the chef to kings, furthered French gastronomy.
I began this review by calling Laperouse the most romantic table in Paris. Only at the end of our meal did we learn how. Chef Alain Hacquard himself took us on a guided tour of the private salons that made Laperouse famous. Kings, politicians, celebrities all brought their mistresses here for quiet, clandestine and above all private dining. The Victor Hugo salon, gorgeous with its hand-painted ceilings and painted panneling, is where the author took his family for afternoon treats. Velvet divans, intimate two-person tables, a staff so discrete they will delay a course until you're ready for it (ahem!), it's dining in a way utterly unknown in the 21st century. You must reserve these rooms far ahead, but they are open to all, and are the ne-plus-ultra of romantic dining.
There are half a dozen private rooms and fabulously appointed dining spaces, we toured them all. The kitchens were a marvel of cleanliness and efficiency, the bar a treat for the eyes. We repaired there after our tour, sipping a birthday glass of champagne with owner-manager Jack Harari. Four hours whisked by from the adventure with the jacket and our final glass of bubbly. We left knowing we would return, knowing we had made not just a discovery, but a friend in Jack and his faultless staff. With a tip, our adventure was 300 Euros, and a bargain at twice that price. I may have to indulge in a bottle of Chateau d'Yquem next time. Laperouse opted out of the Michelin ratings race in the 1970s, preferring to leave with its stars. We are happy to report our experience was every bit as stellar as can be.
51 quai des Grands Augustins
Tel: 01 43 26 00 28
Fax: 01 43 26 99 39
A Burke and Wells Essay